Federal courts delivered welcome opinions last week that protect the rights and dignity of transgender students in two cases – and Americans United has been involved in both.
Two days after a federal court ruled that a Virginia high school had violated the civil rights of transgender teenager Gavin Grimm by refusing to let him use boys restrooms, a federal appeals court affirmed a Pennsylvania school district’s right to implement a policy that allows transgender students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that are consistent with their gender identity.
Not only did the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rule in favor of Boyertown Area School District’s policy, but the court issued a rare decision from the bench less than an hour after oral argument had ended. Judge Theodore McKee said he and the other two judges on the panel ruled so quickly because they knew it was an important issue for Boyertown students, many of whom would be graduating within a few days.
“This case obviously has a great deal of interest not just to the community but to the kids at the school,” said McKee, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
In adopting the policy in 2016, Boyertown intended not only to create a safer, more inclusive environment for transgender students, but also to improve the school environment for all students.
Transgender children more frequently face discrimination and harassment than their peers. As AU has noted in court cases and in opposition to legislation proposing anti-transgender bathroom bans, this bias often is rooted in religious beliefs about gender identity and sexual orientation.
Everyone has the right to believe, or not, as they see fit, but no one has the right to use his or her beliefs as a reason to discriminate against others. And religious beliefs cannot dictate how government enforces the law, especially when those beliefs would result in harm to others.
That’s what Americans United and our allies explained when we filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Boyertown case, and in the two briefs we filed in Grimm’s case.
The lawsuit against Boyertown, Doe v. Boyertown Area School District, was brought by the Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of four students and a few of their parents who want to segregate transgender students from their peers. ADF alleged the student plaintiffs’ privacy was violated by allowing transgender students to use the same facilities as them.
Not only did the judges find that they had not proven their privacy was violated by Boyertown’s policy, but Judge McKee pushed back against the ADF-allied attorney’s request for a “return to the status quo.”
“You could have come in here during Brown v. Board of Education and said, ‘Let’s go back to the status quo,’” said McKee, who is African American. He was referencing the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down racial segregation in public schools. “These types of cases wouldn’t happen if the answer was always, ‘Go back to the status quo.’
“The high school obviously thought there were some real problems that needed addressing,” McKee added.
We’re glad the courts are protecting the rights of transgender students, and we hope more school districts implement policies that address students’ needs. It is unfair to deny the humanity of transgender students and prevent them from using appropriate facilities – which in turn prevents them from being equal citizens in their own schools and communities.
Americans United will continue to fight against attempts to use religion to influence policy, especially in ways that would harm others. You can learn more about our work through our Protect Thy Neighbor campaign.